I never knew why we do chalkboard drawings in the Waldorf classroom. My first exposure, like many, was upon visiting a Waldorf school for the first time. There, and distinctly so, the soothing classroom had its focal point: a beautiful drawing done in chalk at the front of the room. There is no mistaking a Waldorf classroom from any other. As a matter of fact, wherever you go in the world, you will have the same sense of “home” that is distinctly a Waldorf classroom.
When I became a class teacher I followed suit. Yet, I will never forget my first chalkboard drawing experience for my class. I had picked up a second grade, and Saint Michael was the story for the first day of school. I had never taken an art class, done much drawing or painting, and the only colored chalk I had ever handled was a chunky piece of sidewalk chalk during play with my own children. I was intimidated and completely overwhelmed to say the least. A wonderful mentor simply said to me, “Here, this is the gesture of Michael,” and she stood firmly on the ground with one arm extended toward the sky and the other pointing down to the earth. Okay, simple enough. But really, in its simplicity, the gesture is the crux of the chalkboard drawing.
I began to draw, first covering my intended space with a heavenly blue background and gleaming golden sun. Out of the clouds came our hero Michael, slaying the dragon and banishing him from the heavens. I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do this. Not only that, when something didn’t quite look right, I simply drew over it again and mistake gone. With practice and delightful stories to work with, not to mention delighted students, the drawings became much less intimidating and overwhelming.
After a few years of doing these drawings with and for my students, I began to have a deeper understanding of why we do these chalkboard drawings. The stories and accompanying artwork settle so deeply in the students that the pulse in the classroom is palpable. The students can’t help but glance toward the front of the room upon entering to see if anything has changed on the board. I still have a lot to learn, and will continue to stay open to answers as they come, but my desire is to inspire Waldorf teachers to enjoy this gift that we bring to the children under our care and tutelage.
THE STORY COMES FIRST...
First and foremost, it is in the storytelling that the first images come. Here the child lives into their imagination and creates for themselves a picture with detail and feeling. Through the art of speech the teacher first imbues the child’s imagination with age appropriate stories that serve to educate the whole child in their head and heart, as well as their hand. Then, through the artistic activities that follow a review, the child is allowed to live into the story again and to forge upon it the feelings that allow a true connection to the content of the lesson. The importance of the deliverance is given by Rawson and Masters (2000):
One of Steiner education’s main aims is to educate the whole human being in thinking, feeling and will i.e. head, heart and hand. Make everything into a picture - means that the material should not be defined in concepts but portrayed in vivid descriptions - a fountain, river, a cliff, a tree, a flower, the North Star, or even the physical law of gravity and the principles of chemistry. Ordinary everyday life can be portrayed in meaningful pictures and images. The teacher must fill with inner conviction and warmth the pictures he/she presents to the souls of the children. They can derive strength for the whole of their lives from lessons that stream from heart to heart rather than head to head. (p. 12)
The teacher will then give the example for the students to render and then allow them to embellish their work with details of the story that spoke to them. In this work, the teacher is given the gift of insight into the child’s very soul being and has been a part of fostering the further development of that soul. The teacher brings the example to the students, encouraging imagination and artistic freedom and in return the students will take up ownership of the material presented and make it their own, deeply embedding it. Steiner (2000) remarks:
Children are more receptive to authority in teaching through art. Consequently, we can accomplish the most in this sense during this period of children’s lives using artistic methods. They will very effortlessly find their way into what we wish to communicate to them and take the greatest delight in rendering it by drawing or even painting. We should make sure, however, that they avoid merely imitative work. (p. 9)
It is through the lessons, which come in the form of stories in the early years and still in the later years woven with factual information, that the students begin to make connections - strong connections - to the world in which they live. In the online mission statement of the Alliance for Childhood, it is stated that they “act for the sake of the children themselves and for a more just, democratic, and ecologically responsible future.” This statement also includes that the Alliance “promotes policies and practices that support children’s healthy development, love of learning, and joy in living.” Today’s world is in need of inhabitants that can recognize and understand the world they live in, be open to cultural differences and be able to conceptualize solutions for the challenges that they will face in their adult years. Found in the appendix, Finser (1994) adds an article supporting this idea, written by Joan Almon, director for the Alliance for Childhood titled “Educating for Creative Thinking: The Waldorf Approach,”
One of the tasks of the Waldorf elementary teacher is to present the curriculum in such a way that it stirs the imagination and feelings of the students, creating a context in which they can experience sympathy and antipathy, joy and sorrow, anger and tranquility, and much more.” Further on she states: Through mythologies, great stories, and stirring biographies, the children’s own moral impulses are awakened, and an idealism begins to grow in them that will flower in adolescence. (p. 231)
Rudolf Steiner (1997) firmly believed that through an artistic education, children would develop into the very moral human beings able to impart upon the world we live in a much needed social renewal. Almost one hundred years ago he realized that the world was abandoning this approach and what was needed was a reformation of the educational system. That ideal is becoming more of a reality as Waldorf education spreads globally. He speaks of the second stage of a child’s development, the first eight grades of elementary school:
In this second stage we are no longer obligated to merely accept passively everything coming from our environment, allowing it to vibrate in us physically; rather, we transform it creatively into images. The child demands everything in a creative, artistic way. The teachers and educators who encounter the child must present everything from the perspective of an artist. Our contemporary culture demands this of teachers, and this is what must flow into the art of education; at this point, interactions between the growing human being and educators must take an artistic form. In this respect, we face great obstacles as teachers. Our civilization and the culture all around us have reached the point where they are geared only to the intellect, not to the artistic nature.” (p.29). Whatever lives in our thoughts about nature must fly on the wings of artistic inspiration and transform into images. They must rise in the soul of the child. (p.30)
Although Steiner mentions a chalkboard in very few places, he does speak endlessly about imbuing each lesson with artistic elements and beauty for the child to devour in the realm of their feeling life. Jack Petrash (2002) wrote a whole section on teaching through art. Here he states:
“The teaching of any subject, from science to history, can be enlivened and enhanced by incorporating art into the instruction.” (p. 60)
Later on he quotes, “Evidence from the brain sciences and evolutionary psychology increasingly suggests that the arts (along with language and math) play an important role in brain development and maintenance.” (Sylwester, 1998, p. 32) (60).
In providing the students with a beautiful environment conducive to learning, the Waldorf teacher is fostering the child’s development and ability to know beauty in the world around him. In Rudolf Steiner’s (1996) own words:
Much can be done with the simplest resources, if only the teacher has the proper artistic power and energy for work - these are among the lifelong results of the proper cultivation of a feeling for beauty and art. The moral sense is also being formed in children during these years through the pictures of life placed before them, through the authorities whom they look up to - this moral sense becomes assured if children, from their own sense of beauty, feel that the good is beautiful, and also that the bad is ugly. (p. 35)
There is much written in Steiner’s literature, Waldorf Education resources and mainstream research as well to support the arts in education. But, the true testament comes from the words and reactions of the students when they enter a Waldorf classroom where their class teacher has given them the gift of art. It is something that they look forward to upon entering the classroom each morning. And a gift like this that is given in love will be received in love - regardless of the talent or skill level.